Scott McCloud has a fascinating typology of four, fundamentally different types of art - and artists. But how distinct are they?
Certain tensions crop up over and again in conversations about art, be it art v commerce, truth v beauty or the ever popular form v content. Now comics, once derided as "just for kids" but now the source of some of our most powerful storytelling, have entered the high falutin' fray in the form of Scott McCloud, leading theorist of comics and graphic novels.
On the road promoting Making Comics, the follow-up to his now classic text on the practice and theory of comics, Understanding Comics, he recently spoke at the San Diego ComiCon. He's a brilliant and engaging speaker, presenting a new and compelling viewpoint on storytelling, both in comics and other narrative forms. But one of McCloud's most interesting ideas, drawn as much from his observations of artists as of art, are the four tribes of artists and creative thinkers.
Hang out at any big gathering of artists long enough and, McCloud argues, you will see the artists gravitate towards four clusters, or tribes. These tribes represent the fundamental values those artists hold and strive towards in their work. They are not impermeable concrete bunkers, and most artists have their feet in two or more tribes.
• Animists are the first artists, the shamen dancing around the tribal fire who drag raw emotion from their soul and give it to the audience. They are the instinctual artists, concerned above all with content. (Jeff Smith and Jack Kirby would both fall easily under this heading.)
• Classicists worship at the altar of beauty, and yearn to create art that achieves greatness. They believe in objective standards of good and bad, and establish the canon of great artists who embody those ideals. (Neil Gaiman and Frank Cho.)
• Iconoclasts are either the first against the wall when the revolution comes, or at the front leading the charge. They use art as a means of personal and political expression, and when asked will say that they value truth over all else. (See Robert Crumb and Alan Moore.)
• Formalists love talking about art almost as much as they enjoy creating it. They are the experimenters of any given art, obsessing about details of style and technique in their own work and the work of others. (McCloud himself, and Chris Ware.)
The real fun begins when you start to look at synergies and conflicts that exist between the tribes. Between the Classicists and Animists is the shared belief that tradition is important, a belief which both the Formalists and Iconoclasts give the finger to in favour of revolution and change. However, the Formalists and Classicists both believe first and foremost in the value of art, whereas Animists and Iconoclasts both make art secondary to life.
These might seem fairly arbitrary distinctions, until you relate them to those unending arguments in the arts, which start to look like ongoing territorial squabbles between competing tribes. What is the age-old debate between truth and beauty, if not a fight between the Classicists and the Iconoclasts? Who is more passionate about style v content than Formalists and Animists.
The theory of the four tribes makes an interesting thought experiment for artists, one that raises far more question than it answers. Where do we each fit among the tribes? Are there artists who belong to none of the tribes, or who belong all of them? And of course it's fun to debate the merits of one tribe over the other, which so many arguments in the arts boil down to.
But every tribe has weaknesses to balance their strengths. For all their ability to move an audience, Animists are often the most colloquial and narrow-minded artists. Classicists might know what is great, but in constantly repeating it can easily become boring. While style-conscious Formalists can be so concerned with experimentation that their creations lack heart and soul. And the Iconoclasts, determined to change the world, risk making art consumed by negativity and anger. Whichever tribe you belong to, it's worth opening your mind to the strengths and values of your opponents, even when enjoying a really good argument with them.